Bilingualism on the US-Mexico Border

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Ana Celia Zentella, the current Eugene M. Lang Visiting Professor for Social Change, gave a lecture Wednesday afternoon entitled “Transfronterizo Talk: Conflicting Constructions of Bilingualism on the US-Mexico Border”. The talk presented the preliminary findings of her most recent research interviewing 79 Spanish-English bilingual college students at her current home institution, the University of California, San Diego.

Zentella’s transfronterizos, or ”border-crossers’’, in question, were students who had lived and studied in both Tijuana, the nearest Mexican border city, and in San Diego. In many cases, these students crossed the border – a three hour journey, at least – on a daily basis during their earlier education. The purpose of her research, said Zentella, a self-described ”anthro-political linguist,’’ was to determine ”if these students are challenging or reinforcing the classic notion of the ‘ideal bilingual’’’; the ideal being fluency in both languages, but with the use of each restricted to particular situations and people, without any mixing.

Background work showed that bilingual transfronterizos were under conflicting pressures regarding the languages they spoke. In Tijuana, speaking English was viewed as ”uppity’’ and ”pretentious.’’ In San Diego, on the other hand, Spanish use was discouraged because of negative class perceptions of Mexicans. The strongest pressure felt by the students, however, was the need in both settings to differentiate themselves from the Mexican immigrant stereotype: lacking a strong grasp of either language or culture, and looked down upon by purists of both ethnicities, said Zentella.

While many initial or potential bilinguals responded by simply choosing to speak English because of its perceived cultural capital, another response that emerged was the rise of Spanglish, a form of code-switching between English and Spanish, among bilingually fluent speakers. While this is almost a natural response to the cultural environment, said Zentella, language purists view it as an abomination. Rather than simply creating a domain for Spanish in the public sphere, which has already been done with ”commodification of bilingualism,’’ Zentella hoped to communicate that “these students, and others like them, possess a repertoire of identities and languages, and belong equally in both Mexican and American communities.’’ Spanglish is simply an expression of that repertoire, ”the product of a lived experience,’’ she said.

In her activist work, Zentella tries to use “language as a lever for issues of social change and social justice, to exert pressure to interrupt the reproduction of inequality in society.’’  In particular, she has been speaking to primary and secondary school teachers, and stressed that ultimately, they need to be informed about linguistic anthropology and how it deeply affects the lives of their students. 

Born and raised in the Bronx, NY, by a Puerto Rican mother and a Mexican father, Zentella’s connection to Spanglish is very personal. In response to a question about her identification with the ”Spanglish resistance,’’ she said regarding her English-language lecture, ”This is only one part of Ana Celia that you’re getting. This [pointing to a Spanglish transcription on a slide] is me. When I’m talking to mi gente [my people], this is what I’m like.’’

Professor Zentella is currently teaching a course entitled ”Language, Race, and Ethnic Identities in the USA’’, cross-listed in the departments of Linguistics and Sociology & Anthropology, and will also offer a course next semester: ”U.S. Latino Languages and Dialects in Contact in Families, Schools, and Communities’’, in the departments of Linguistics, Sociology & Anthropology, and Education.

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